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Rubber boom

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Map showing the region of the Amazon which enjoyed the rubber boom. It includes part of Brazil and Bolivia, along the rivers Madeira, Mamoré and Guaporé, near which the Madeira Mamoré Railroad was built.

The rubber boom was an important part of the economic and social history of Brazil, being related with the extraction and commercialization of rubber. This boom was centered in the Amazon, facilitating a large expansion of colonization, attracting wealth and causing cultural and social transformations, along with encouraging the growth of Manaus, Porto Velho, and Belém, which today remain major cities and the capitals of their respective Brazilian states, Amazonas, Rondônia and Pará. The rubber boom occurred largely between 1879 to 1912, and afterwards experienced a revival from 1942 to 1945 during the Second World War.



Extraction of latex from a rubber tree.

The first factory for rubber products (suspenders (US) or braces (UK)) was in Paris, France, in the year 1803.[citation needed] However, the material still had disadvantages: at room temperature, it was sticky. At higher temperatures, the rubber became softer and stickier, while at lower temperatures it became hard and rigid.

The natives of Central America were the first to discover and use the unique properties of natural rubber. Thus, it was in the Amazon rainforest that rubber extraction developed, using the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis), a member of the Euphorbiaceae family.

A white liquid called latex is extracted from the stem of the rubber tree, which contains on average 35% hydrocarbons, in particular 2-methylbuta-1,3-diene (C5H8), commercially known as isoprene, the monomer of rubber.

Latex is a practically neutral substance, with a pH of 7.0 to 7.2. However, when it is exposed to the air for 12 to 24 hours, its pH falls to 5.0 and it spontaneously coagulates to form the polymer rubber, represented by (C5H8)n, where "n" is of the order of 10,000 and gives a molecular mass of 600,000 to 950,000 g/mol.

Rubber produced in this fashion has disadvantages. For example, exposure to air causes it to mix with various materials, which is perceptible and can cause rot, as well as a temperature-dependent stickiness. With an industrial treatment, the impurities are removed and the rubber is exposed to a process of vulcanization, eliminating the undesirable qualities. It acquires superior mechanical properties, loses its sticky character, and becomes stable and resistant to solvents and variations in temperature.

The first rubber boom, 1879–1912

For the first four and a half centuries following the discovery of the New World, as no gold or precious stones were discovered in the Amazon, the native populations lived practically in isolation, as neither colonial Brazil nor imperial Brazil was able to create incentives for development in the region. Living with an economy based on vegetable extraction, the regional economy developed for centuries, accompanied with the interest of the market of diverse natural resources in the region.

Rubber: sure wealth

The development of the Industrial Revolution in Europe was the fuse which made natural rubber, until then exclusively found in the Amazon, a desirable commodity, valued at a high price, and creating wealth and dividends for whoever would dare invest in the trade.

From the beginning of the second half of the 19th century, rubber began to exert a strong attraction to visionary entrepreneurs. The activity of latex extraction in the Amazon revealed its lucrative possibilities. Natural rubber soon achieved a place of distinction in the industries of Europe and North America, reaching a high price. This caused various people to travel to Brazil with the intention of learning more about the rubber tree and the process of latex extraction, with the end of achieving wealth.

Because of the growth of rubber extraction numerous cities and towns swelled. Belém and Manaus, which already existed, became transformed and urbanized. Manaus was the first Brazilian city to be urbanized and the second to be electrified (the first was Campos dos Goytacazes, in Rio de Janeiro).

Development of railroads

File:08 tory railtrack ubt.jpeg
The rubber boom justified the construction of the Madeira Mamoré Railroad

The idea of constructing a railroad at the edge of the Madeira and Mamoré Rivers arose in Bolivia in 1846. As the country did not have the territory to transport the rubber production, it was necessary to find an alternative that enabled export of the rubber across the Atlantic Ocean.

The initial idea was for river navigation, going up the Mamoré in Bolivia and then down the Madeira River, in Brazil. However, the river course had substantial obstacles: twenty cataracts obstructed navigation. As it was impractical, constructing a railroad to bypass the problematic stretches was the only solution.

In 1867, in Brazil, also trying to discover a simple way to transport the rubber, the engineers José and Francisco Keller organized a large expedition, exploring the rubber region of the Madeira River to find the most productive region and the most effective course for the railroad.

Although the idea of river navigation was complicated, in 1869, the North American engineer George Earl Church obtained from the Bolivian government a concession to create and explore a navigation enterprise that linked the Mamoré and Madeira Rivers. However, shortly afterwards, he realized the real difficulty of this undertaking, and the plans were definitively changed to the construction of a railroad. Negotiations advanced and, by 1870, Church received permission from the Brazilian government to build a railroad along the rubber trees of the Madeira River.

The Acre question

The territory of Acre state in modern Brazil

However, the increase in uncontrolled extraction of rubber was on the road to provoking an international conflict. The Brazilian workers advanced further and further into the forests in the territory of Bolivia in search of new rubber trees to extract the precious latex, creating conflicts and skirmishes on the frontier towards the end of the 19th century, which required the presence of the army, led by José Plácido de Castro. The recently-proclaimed Brazilian republic drew considerable profit from the wealth of the rubber trade, but the "Acre question" (as the border conflicts caused by rubber extraction became known) preoccupied it.

It was then that a providential and intelligent intervention by the diplomat Barão do Rio Branco and the ambassador Joaquim Francisco de Assis Brasil, in part financed by the "rubber barons," culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Petropolis, signed November 17, 1903 during the government of president Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves. This treaty halted the conflict with Bolivia, guaranteeing effective control of the forests of Acre by Brazil.

Brazil received definitive possession of the region in exchange for territories in Mato Grosso, a payment of two million pounds sterling, and the compromise of constructing the railroad which passed over the rubber tree-rich Madeira River and gave Bolivian goods (of which rubber was the principal) access to the Brazilian ports of the Atlantic (initially Belém in Pará, at the mouth of the Amazon River).

Because of this historic episode, peacefully resolved, the capital of Acre received the name Rio Branco and two of the municipalities in the state received names of two other important people: Assis Brasil and Plácido de Castro.

Madeira-Mamoré completed, but falls into disuse

The Madeira-Mamoré Railroad, also known as the "Devil's Railroad" on account of having caused the death of around six thousand workers (in legends said to be one dead worker per railroad tie attached to the rails) was canceled by the United States corporation Percival Farquhar. The construction of the railroad began in 1907 during the government of Afonso Augusto Moreira Pena and was one of the most significant episodes in the history of the occupation of the Amazon, revealing the clear attempt to integrate it into the global marketplace via the commercialization of rubber.

On April 30, 1912, the final stretch of the Madeira-Mamoré Railroad was completed. The occasion was commemorated by the arrival of the first train to the city of Guajará-Mirim, founded on that same day.

But the destiny of the railroad that was constructed with the principal purpose of transporting rubber and other products from the Amazon region, both in Bolivia and Brazil, to the Atlantic ports, and which came at a high human cost, was the worst possible.

First, the price of latex fell precipitously in the world market, making the trade of rubber from the Amazon unviable. Also, the transport of products that could have been transported by the Madeira-Mamoré Railroad were taken by two other railroads, one in Chile and the other in Argentina, and the Panama Canal, which became active on August 15, 1914.

Added to this, the natural factor, the Amazon forest, with its high level of precipitation, destroyed entire stretches of the rails, leveled ground, and bridges, reclaiming a large part of the way that people had insisted on clearing to construct the railroad.

The railroad was partially taken out of service in the 1930s and completely in 1972, the year in which the Trans-Amazonian highway (BR-230). Today, from a total of 364 km of length, about seven remain in active use, used for tourist purposes.

The people of Rondonia have fought for revitalization of the railroad, but as of December 1, 2006, the work remains unstarted.

Apogee, elegance, and luxury

Amazon Theatre in Manaus, one of the luxurious buildings built with rubber fortunes.

Belém, the capital of Pará state, as well as Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, were the most developed and prosperous cities in Brazil during the rubber boom, not only due to its strategic position, but also because a large number of residences for the rubber extractors was there. Both cities were electrified and given running water and sewers. Their apogee was reached between 1890 and 1920, due to technologies that other cities in the south and southeast of Brazil still didn't have, such as electric trams, avenues built on cleared gullies, as well as imposing and luxurious buildings, such as the polished Teatro Amazonas, the government palace, the municipal market, and the customs house, in the case of Manaus, and the fish market, the iron market, Teatro da Paz, corridors of mango trees, and various residential palaces in the case of Belém, constructed in large part by the intendant Antônio Lemos.

The European influence later became notable in Manaus and Belém, in the architecture and the way of life, making the 19th century the best economic phase endured by the two cities. The Amazon was responsible in the era for nearly 40% of all Brazil's exports. The new riches of Manaus made the city the world capital in the sale of diamonds. Thanks to rubber, the per capita income of Manaus was twice as much as the coffee-producing region (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Espírito Santo).

As payment for the export of rubber, the workers were paid in pounds sterling (£), the currency of the United Kingdom, which circulated in Manaus and Belém during this period.

The end of the Amazon's rubber monopoly

However, the Madeira-Mamoré Railroad, finished in 1912, arrived too late. The Amazon was already losing primacy in rubber production due to rubber trees planted by the English in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and tropical Africa. These rubber trees were planted from seeds that Henry Wickham had smuggled out of Brazil in 1876. [1] These plantations were able to produce latex with greater efficiency and productivity. Consequently, with lower costs and a lower final price, the British Empire assumed control of the world rubber market.

The natural rubber from the Amazon came to have a prohibitively expensive price in the world market, having as an immediate effect the stagnation of the regional economy. The rubber crisis grew worse due to the lack of entrepreneurial or governmental vision in finding alternatives with would make possible regional development, and had as an immediate consequence the stagnation of the cities. The fault lies not only with the enterprises taken as the "rubber barons" and the economic elite in general, but also the government and politicians who could provide incentives for the creation of administrative projects which would generate economic planning and sustainable development of rubber extraction.

Malaysia, which invested in the planting of rubber trees and in latex extraction technology, was the principal cause of the loss of the Brazilian monopoly
. Although the railroad and the cities of Porto Velho and Guajará-Mirim remained as a legacy to this bright economic period, the recession caused by the end of the rubber boom left profound scars on the Amazon region: loss of state tax income, high levels of unemployment, rural and urban emigration, abandoned and unneeded housing, and, primarily, a complete lack of expectations in relation to the future for those who chose to remain in the region.

The rubber workers, now deprived of their income, remained in the periphery of Manaus in search of ways to ameliorate their condition. There, because of lack of housing, they began in the 1920s the construction of the cidade flutuante ("floating city"), a type of residence that was consolidated in the 1960s.

The central government of Brazil even created an organ with the objective of stemming the crisis, named the Superintendência de Defesa da Borracha ("Superintendency of Defence of Rubber"), but the organization was inefficient and was not able to effect real changes, and, for this reason, was eliminated soon after its creation.

In the 1930s, Henry Ford, the United States automobile pioneer, undertook the cultivation of rubber trees in the Amazon region, and established the city of Fordlândia, in the west part of Pará state, specifically for this end, but the initiative was not successful because the plantation suffered from a leaf pest.

The second rubber boom, 1942-1945

The Amazon again experienced a rubber boom during the Second World War, although it was of brief duration. As Japan dominated the eastern Pacific Ocean from the beginning of 1942 and invaded Malaysia, the rubber plantations there came under their control, which resulted in the loss of 97% of Asiatic rubber production.

This resulted in the implementation of new elements, including infrastructure, in Belém and Manaus, this time on the behalf of the United States. An example of this is the Grande Hotel, a luxurious hotel constructed in Belém in only three years, which today is the Hilton Hotel.

The rubber battle

With the enlisting of the northeastern Brazilians, Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas reduced the problem of the economic blight and at the same time gave new impetus to the colonization of the Amazon Basin.

Anxious to find a way to resolve this impasse and, at the same time, supply the Allied Forces with the rubber needed for war equipment, the Brazilian government made and agreement with the United States government (the Washington Accords), which resulted in the large-scale extraction of Amazon latex, an operation which became known as the Batalha da borracha ("rubber battle").

As the rubber forests had been abandoned and no more than 35,000 workers remained in the region, the great challenge of Brazil was to increase the annual production of latex from 18,000 to 45,000 tons, as set in the agreement. For this, 100,000 men were needed.

The Estado Novo in 1943 ordered the compulsory enlisting of workers in the Serviço Especial de Mobilização de Trabalhadores para a Amazônia (SEMTA; "Special Service of Mobilization of Workers for the Amazon"), based in the northeast, in Fortaleza. The choice of the Northeast as the center was a response to a devastating drought in the region and to the unprecedented crisis that the farmers in the region confronted.

In addition to SEMTA, the government created other organizations to support the rubber battle: the Superintendência para o Abastecimento do Vale da Amazônia (Sava: the Superintendency for the Provisioning of the Amazon Valley), the Serviço Especial de Saúde Pública (Sesp: the Special Service of Public Health), and the Serviço de Navegação da Amazônia e de Administração do Porto do Pará (Snapp: Navigation Serice of the Amazon and Administration of the Port of Pará). The Banco de Crédito da Borracha (Rubber Credit Bank) was also created, which later in 1950 became the Banco de Crédito da Amazônia (Amazon Credit Bank).

The United States government paid the Brazilian government $100 for every worker delivered to the Amazon

The international organization Rubber Development Corporation (RDC), financed with capital from United States industries, covered the expenses of relocating the migrants (known at the time as brabos). The United States government paid the Brazilian government $100 for every worker delivered to the Amazon.

Thousands of workers from various regions of Brazil were transported under force to obligatory servitude and death by diseases against which they had no immunity. The northeast region sent 54,000 workers to the Amazon alone, 30,000 of which were from Ceará. These new rubber workers were called soldados da borracha ("rubber soldiers") in a clear allusion to the role of the latex in supplying the U.S. factories with the rubber necessary to fight the war.

Manaus had, in 1849, 5,000 inhabitants, and, in a half-century, grew to 70,000. During World War II the region again experienced prosperity. Money began to circulate in Manaus, Belém, and other cities and towns nearby and the regional economy gained strength.

Each migrant signed a contract with SEMTA which offered a small salary for the worker during their transport to the Amazon region. Upon arrival, they received a payment of 60% of the total profit which had been obtained with the rubber. The basic kit they received included basic clothing, eating equipment, a net, and a carton of Colomy cigarettes. After being recruited, the volunteers were placed in specially-built housing, under strict military watch, and then sent into the Amazon, on trips which could last two to three months.

Mosquito, the vector of malaria and yellow fever, diseases which caused many deaths among the rubber workers

Meanwhile, for many workers, it was a one-way journey. About 30,000 rubber workers died abandoned in the Amazon, after having exhausted their energies extracting the "white gold." They died of malaria, yellow fever, and hepatitis[2], and were attacked by animals such as panthers, serpents, and scorpions. The Brazilian government also did not fulfill its promise to return the "rubber soldiers" to their homes at the end of the war as heroes and with housing comparable to that of the military.[3]. It is calculated that only about 6,000 workers managed to return to their homes, at their own expense.


The abrupt end of the first and second rubber boom demonstrate the entrepreneurial incapacity and the lack of vision of the dominant class and politicians of the region. The end of the war brought the loss of the chance to correct the mistakes made after the first rubber boom. No effective plan of regional sustainable development was made, which had the result that as soon as the war ended, the economies of both the winners and losers reorganized in Europe and Asia, and brought to an end the production of the old and inefficient rubber workers in the Amazon.



External links

Further reading

  • Barbara Weinstein. The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850-1920. Stanford University Press, 1983. ISBN 0804711682
This article is based on a translation of the corresponding article from the Portuguese Wikipedia.


All translations of Rubber_boom

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